It was inevitable that someone would create a Big Tech wiki, and here we are. The wiki's site predictably presents a list of common complaints against tech giants. But before we dive into this particular phenomenon, let's take a look at the term “Big Tech” and what it's supposed to represent.
It originated with “Big Oil” over a century ago. Still, the concept is competition law, defined by Wikipedia as “the field of law that promotes or seeks to maintain market competition by regulating anti-competitive conduct by companies [and] is implemented through public and private enforcement.”
It's not difficult to grasp, and the history of competition law dates from the Roman Empire. “Around 50 B.C.,” says Wikipedia, “heavy fines were imposed on anyone directly, deliberately, and insidiously stopping supply ships” to protect the grain trade. Interfering with a supply chain to rig prices is clearly a violation of competition law.
“The concept continued during the Middle Ages when 'foresteel' (i.e., forestalling, the practice of buying up goods before they reach the market and then inflating the prices) was one of three forfeitures that King Edward the Confessor could carry out through England.” More famously, “The [U.S.'s] Sherman Act of 1890 attempted to outlaw the restriction of competition by large companies, who cooperated with rivals to fix outputs, prices and market shares, initially through pools and later through trusts.”
Busting trusts, not businesses
The most famous trustbuster was U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, who famously said: “Speak softly, and carry a big stick.” Roosevelt's target was Big Oil ― prominently exemplified by the Standard Oil Company Trust, which “in the 1880s controlled several markets, including fuel oil, lead, and whiskey,” according to Wikipedia.
A recent analysis by Ohio State University paints a more balanced picture of Roosevelt. “Roosevelt believed that when a business grew big, it was not necessarily bad,” said OSU, “Bigness might mean simply that a firm had bested its rivals through superior efficiencies, prices, and service. Having superior efficiencies, prices, and service might well require bigness, as in the case of a railroad providing service through an extensive system across a wide territory.”
Is railroad infrastructure a good metaphor for big tech?
The term “trustbuster” suits a politician seeking re-election more than “upholder of competition law,” but according to OSU, Roosevelt had a firm grasp of the government's effective controls on private business. “If a firm grew through reasonable means, then the government should not attack it,” says the university in its analysis. “However, if a firm grew through unfair practices, then government should enforce its power.”
Tech-centric by default
Business-centric communication is perennial, and pervasive technology has brought us new vectors. Larger businesses are tech-centric by default now ― consumers expect to connect via a website and social media, preferably 24/7.
The railroad serves as a monopolistic metaphor. Constructing a transcontinental railroad in the 19th century helped unify the U.S. post-Civil War and boosted business in the western part of the nation. The infrastructure costs were tremendous, and the term “railroad barons” was coined to describe the moguls who earned riches from the rail link stretching across the Wild West. Good for businesses but clearly a monopoly.
Jack Dorsey's regret
It's trendy nowadays to attribute social ills to social media platforms and, by extension, their chief executives. Mark Zuckerberg of Meta (the “artist” formerly known as Facebook) comes to mind.
Jack Dorsey recently expressed regrets about Twitter, the social media giant he co-founded. “Dorsey, who announced plans to leave Twitter in November, recently tweeted that he feels guilty about the role the company has played in creating a centralized internet, where a small handful of companies and platforms claim an outsized proportion of users and their data,” said CNBC.
The history of competition law dates from the Roman Empire
“With 217 million daily users, Twitter certainly qualifies as one of those platforms, along with other tech giants like Meta, Alphabet, and Amazon,” said CNBC. “Alphabet-owned Google captures more than 90% of the online search market, according to StatCounter. Research from eMarketer shows that roughly 64% of all digital ad spending [goes] to Amazon, Facebook, and Google.”
“The days of usenet, irc, the web...even email (w PGP)...were amazing,” wrote Dorsey in his April 2 tweet. “Centralizing discovery and identity into corporations really damaged the internet.”
“I realize I'm partially to blame and regret it,” wrote Dorsey, who stepped down as the company’s chief executive officer last year.
Do we need new trustbusters?
Dorsey's comments on centralized identity touch on society at large and not just tech-boosted communication. On the tech side, there are issues of data privacy and overarching legislation such as the E.U.'s GDPR that attempt to address that.
We enjoy avenues of communication that people back in Teddy Roosevelt's day could never have dreamed of. But, inevitably, there are downsides, and it's convenient to blame corporations.
It's no secret that many of the “free” services on offer are subsidized by the value of the data they gather. The value-equation of this harvested data isn't an exact science, but users can opt out. No one is forcing Netizens to use Twitter, for example.
Big Tech isn't violating the letter of competition law. But the creation of a Big Tech wiki indicates that some feel the spirit of competition law is under pressure.
Stefan Hammond is a contributing editor to CDOTrends. Best practices, the IOT, payment gateways, robotics and the ongoing battle against cyberpirates pique his interest. You can reach him at [email protected].
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